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Okay, so Krista didn't expect a welcoming party when she returned home from her mission trip, but she didn't expect the house to be trashed either.
As she stepped inside the front hallway of her bungalow, a shaft of moonlight illuminated the mess in her living room. Sofa cushions were strewn across the shag rug, the end table was tipped over and mail littered the floor.
Anastasia was not happy. Who would have thought a ten-pound cat could actually do so much damage? That she could tip over furniture?
Krista dropped her purse, went to the oak bureau and pulled the chain on the vintage lamp.
"Anastasia," Krista scolded. The cat had probably chewed through the cord again. You'd think one shocking experience would be enough for kitty to keep her fangs off the electrical wire.
"Come on, Natalie took care of you." Krista edged her way through the living room, hoping to find a lamp with an unchewed cord, and hoping she got some light before her attack cat decided to pounce.
She tried a second lamp, with no luck. Being stalked by a crazy cat in broad daylight is one thing, but in pitch black it could be its own kind of shocking experience.
"Kitty, kitty, kitty," she cooed.
Krista was so not in the mood for surprises. Exhaustion filled every cell of her body after spending fourteen hours traveling from Mexico to Michigan. It was bad enough she'd missed her connection, but then they'd lost her luggage. She waited an hour and gave up, asking them to send it home when they found it.
At least she had the important stuff: her Bible, book of inspirational quotes and digital card with the hundreds of pictures she'd taken on the mission trip. She couldn't wait to upload the shots to her Faithgirl blog.
"Ana-sta-sia," she called out. The cat was sure to be in attack mode. After all, Krista had abandoned her for nearly two weeks. How dare she!
"Kitty, kitty, kitty," Krista said, feeling her way down the hall to the kitchen.
It wasn't like Krista had completely abandoned her. Her best friend, Natalie Brown, stopped by to check on the feline.
The wall phone rang, making Krista yelp.
She snatched the receiver. "Hello?"
"Welcome home!" Natalie said.
"Thanks, I'm glad to be home. Just wish I had some light." She ran her hand across the wall in search of the switch.
"What do you mean?"
"The cat ate through my lamp cords." She flicked the switch but the ceiling light didn't come on. "Did I forget to pay my bill? No, I set it up on bill pay before I left."
"They wouldn't turn off your lights if you missed one payment, silly girl."
"I'm a tired girl and I can't see what I'm doing and any second now Anastasia is going to strike."
"But it was a good trip, right?" Natalie asked.
"It was amazing." Her heart filled with pride at the memory of helping the children in the small Mexican village. "Anything happen while I was gone?"
"Fred Skripps won the fishing contest, the new condo complex on Fourth got approved and they're bringing in a busload of tourists Friday. Be ready, tea mistress."
"Ready is my middle name."
"Bad, Krista, really bad."
"Sorry. Long flight, they lost my luggage and I'm hungry."
"Check your refrigerator."
Krista made her way to the fridge and pulled it open. Unfortunately the fridge light wasn't working either, but moonlight lit the kitchen enough for Krista to see her friend had left her some goodies.
"You're wonderful," Krista said.
"Says the woman who just spent ten days on a mission trip. You're welcome. There's chicken casserole, fresh fruit and takeout from Pekadill's."
"My mouth is watering. But if my power's out I can't heat it in the micro."
"Did you check the fuse box in the garage?" Nat offered.
"That's next. If I don't fall asleep on my way out there."
"Anastasia would have a field day with that."
"Did you see her at all?" Krista fumbled in the kitchen junk drawer.
"Once, the first time I stopped by. She thought I was you."
"How'd that go?" Krista pulled out a red mini flashlight.
"She ran, hid and never came out again."
"Except to trash my living room," Krista said.
"You want me to send Timothy over?"
"No, thanks. I'll be fine."
"He wouldn't mind."
"I'm good, really." Krista liked being able to take care of herself. Natalie had done plenty, and Krista didn't like taking advantage of Natalie's boyfriend's good nature. "I'll give you a call tomorrow."
"I'll stop by the tea shop."
She hung up and pointed the flashlight into the living room. "Kitty, kitty." She aimed in all the corners, above the bookshelf, then got down on her knees and held her breath as she flashed the light beneath the sofas.
"This is ridiculous." She stood. "I'm not going to let you punk me, kitty."
Pointing the flashlight ahead of her, she marched into the kitchen and flung open the back door. The smell of winter floated through the yard, wrapping around her shoulders like a soft blanket.
Home. There was nothing like it.
She marched outside to the detached garage. Shoving the flashlight into her sweater pocket, she heaved open the garage door and reached for her flashlight. A crashing sound made her jump back.
"Anastasia, how did you get in here?" Krista aimed the flashlight into the garage
And screamed at the sight of a large man rummaging through her toolbox.
Instinct demanded she run, but for a second she couldn't move. Then the intruder turned to reveal a skeleton-masked face. He was holding a weapon in his hand.
Panic shot her out of the garage, her heart pounding against her chest. She raced for the house, focusing on the open door
The man shoved her from behind and she went down against the cobblestone walk, the breath knocked from her lungs. It couldn't end like this. Who would run the tea shop?
Oh, of all the things to be worried about.
Eyes pinched shut, she braced herself.
But nothing happened.
She heard crunching of footsteps through the dormant garden as the man raced off. Could he be some homeless guy trying to stay warm?
"Hey!" a male voice called out behind her.
Followed by a pop. Then another.
She swallowed back the panic that threatened to make her sick.
* * *Special Agent Luke McIntyre hit the ground when he saw the weapon aimed in his direction. Taking cover behind the house, he slipped his Glock from his belt and waited. He didn't want a shoot-out in this small town, but he had to defend himself.
And the woman.
Luke counted to three and poked his head out. The guy was out of sight.
A car's engine sputtered and cracked. Luke raced around the house in time to spot a dark green minivan peeling away from the curb. On the ground lay a nail gun.
Neighbors' lights popped on with interest and he quickly holstered his gun.
There was no doubt Krista Yates was in trouble.
Luke busted tail to get to Wentworth after the tip came in about Victor Garcia. The drug lord was sending men to the quiet Michigan town to finish some business with the Peace Church mission group. Garcia was a bold one to be using a church group to move drugs, but it didn't surprise Luke.
Garcia had been on the DEA's watch list for months and just when they thought they had enough to bring him in, the drug lord fled, probably to Mexico. Luke's office thought they'd lost him for good.
But Luke hadn't given up. Not on this one. There was too much history, too much at stake.
Luke slipped into town and touched base with the police chief, asking that Luke's position as DEA agent be confidential so as not to alert Garcia's men and chase them off. Luke knew that gossip in a small town traveled like wildfire.
Luke wanted to catch Garcia's men in the act of retrieving the drugs so he could hurt Victor Garcia where he'd feel it most: in his business.
No, Luke didn't just want to hurt Garcia. He wanted to destroy him.
The chief explained that Krista Yates coordinated the mission trip, and had somehow missed her connection, so she was arriving later than the rest of the group.
The question was, what was Garcia's connection to Krista Yates?
Luke started around back, the sound of sirens blaring in the distance. He pulled out his shield and clipped it to his jacket pocket. Didn't want Barney Fife thinking he was the perp.
He turned the corner.
The woman was gone.
"Miss Yates?" he called out.
"Who are you and what did you do with my cat?"
He turned toward the house. She was aiming a fire extinguisher at him.
He raised his hands and bit back a smile at her aggressive stance. "I'm a federal agent, ma'am." He nodded toward his shield.
"Oh." She put down the extinguisher. "Wait, how did you get here so fast? Did you say federal agent?"
He took a step toward her and stopped. She looked shaken, petrified. He couldn't blame her.
"Yes, ma'am. I'm with the DEA."
Her green eyes were innocent, yet weary, and a bruise was starting to form on her cheek.
"You'd better ice your cheek or you're gonna look like Rocky Balboa after ten rounds in the ring." Lowering his hands, he started for the house.
She reached for the fire extinguisher.
"I'm on your side, remember?" he said.
"Then fix my lights."
"There's no light in my house. I went to the garage to check the fuse box and that guy jumped me, I mean jumped over me." She shook her head in confusion.
"Go on inside and I'll check the fuse box."
"It's dark inside."
"Okay, then wait on the porch. The cops should be pulling up any second now."
She hugged her midsection with one hand and clutched a
charm at the base of her neck with the other. Although she acted strong, she looked broken and terrified.
And way too fragile.
Luke went into the garage, pulled out his pen flashlight and inspected the fuse box. As he expected, all switches were in the Off position. Luke snapped them on and light beamed from the house onto the back porch.
"Want me to close the garage door?" he called.
Luke peered out from the garage. The woman was gone. What the heck? Did the guy come back? Send an accomplice? He started for the house.
"Police! Freeze!" a female shouted from behind him.
Luke raised his hands. "I'm a federal officer."
"Yeah and I'm Judge Judy. Get down on the ground."
"If you'd let me turn around"
"Do it!" The woman sounded too young and green to be holding a firearm.
The guys in Luke's division would have a field day if the pipsqueak cop shot him in the back due to lack of experience.
"I'm going, I'm going." Luke dropped to his knees, interlacing his hands behind his head.
"All the way down!"
He hesitated, bitter memories tearing through his chest. Being forced down
Held there while his partner, Karl, fought for his life.
"I said get down!" she ordered.
"Deanna, what are you doing?" the Yates woman said, coming out of the house.
"Stay in the house, Krista," the cop ordered.
"No, he's a good guy."
Krista walked up to Luke, removed his shield and flashed it at the cop.
He doubted the rookie could see past her adrenaline rush.
Luke heard another car pull up.
"How do you know that's real?" the female cop said.
"It's real," a man offered.
Luke recognized Chief Cunningham's voice. Luke had spent a good hour with him earlier tonight going over the case.
"Lower your weapon, Officer West," the chief said.
From the concerned look on Krista's face, Luke sensed the female cop didn't follow the order. This was probably the most action she'd seen in her entire year on the force. If she'd even been on the force a year.
"West!" the chief threatened.
Krista sighed with relief and touched Luke's shoulder. "You need help getting up?"
Right, he still hadn't moved, paralyzed by the dark memories that he couldn't bury deep enough. Guilt had a way of rising to the surface to mess with your head at the worst possible moments.
Krista gripped his arm to help him stand. As if he needed help from this fragile thing.
Fragile. Innocent. Dangerous.
"I'm fine." Luke stood and turned to the cop. She looked barely twenty.
"Sorry about that," the chief offered.
"No problem," Luke said.
"Yes problem," Krista countered.
They all looked at her.
"Anastasia is missing." With a shake of her head, she went into the house.
Luke glanced at the chief. "Who's Anastasia?"
"Her cat," Officer West said.
Luke glanced at the house. Krista had nearly been taken out by a member of Garcia's gang and all she could think about was a silly cat?
"Officer West, continue your patrol and don't tell anyone about Agent McIntyre's presence in town," Chief Cunningham said. "I'll handle things here."
"The guy who jumped Miss Yates was driving a dark green minivan," Luke said.
"Okay, thanks." Officer West walked to her cruiser.
"These are not teenage pranksters, West. Radio in if you spot the van. That's an order," the chief said.
The chief turned to Luke. "Ready?"
The chief started for the house. "I have a feeling Krista isn't going to be in a talking mood until we find her cat."
"Welcome to Wentworth, son." Chief Cunningham climbed the steps and disappeared into the house.
"Fantastic," Luke muttered.
He was allergic to cats, and even more allergic to small towns. He grew up in one and hightailed it out of there before he hit his seventeenth birthday. There was too much gossip in a small town, too much imagined drama.
He climbed the steps and glanced across the yard. Imagined? Most of the time. In Krista Yates's case he was pretty sure she'd brought it home with her from Mexico, probably in her luggage, or in something she saw or said.
He shook his head. She was a talker, for sure, but he couldn't imagine the sweet-faced blonde saying anything offensive or rude. This wasn't about manners, it was about one of Mexico's biggest drug cartels moving product into the country via innocents.
The Yates woman defined innocent.
Luke stepped into the house and found the chief and Krista in the living room. "So the house was like this when you got home?" the chief said, eyeing the mess.
"I thought it was the cat."
"You thought the cat tipped over your end table?" Luke asked.
"She's a really big cat and she's rather upset with me right now."
"The sooner we can get a description of the man you saw in the garage, the more accurate it will be," the chief said.
"You don't think he killed her, do you?" Krista asked, her eyes rounding with fear. Wide, green, helpless eyes.
"Now, why would he kill your cat, Krista?" the chief said.
Krista narrowed her eyes. "You, of all people, should not be asking me that. Gladys still has scars from the quilting open house."
"Anastasia? Here, kitty, kitty." She glanced at Luke. "Get the Whiskas. On top of the microwave." She disappeared upstairs.
Luke glanced at the chief.
"The sooner we find the cat " the chief said with a shrug.